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Posted on Mar 10, 2014 in Featured Slider, Worship Ministry | 5 comments

The Surmountable Challenge Facing Churches Using Hymnals

Let’s face it. Our society has changed drastically in a few ways over recent decades.

I suppose technology is the most obvious and dramatic change. I mean, who would’ve dreamed in the 90’s that cell phones would become what they now are?

Another change that may only seem obvious and dramatic to those of us living in the blue collar worship ministry world is the shift in musical know-how. The art & science of music was once widely taught in our culture: in schools, in homes, and in churches. From an early age, a person could be expected to understand at least the rudimentary concepts of notes and singing.


Today, the only folks who know anything about sight-reading are those who volunteered to take electives in middle & high school like choir, orchestra, or band. Everyone else learns to sing in their car or with their big, shiny headphones on. In other words, listening for a melody and singing it out is the most we can hope for from the younger and unchurched demographics.

Call it sad. Call it mad. Call it a travesty. Call it what you will but it’s reality today and it’s likely the reality in your church.

And what does this mean for churches using hymnals?  It presents a challenge but not an insurmountable one. The challenge is: Hymns were written to be sung in 4-parts by people who had been taught which part best fit their vocal range and had at least a basic knowledge of how to follow the notes for that part.

Those people are few and far between these days. They’re even rare in choirs that teach it. I sang in school choirs in middle school, high school, and college. Even in those settings, the true behind-the-scenes story was that only couple people at each part that actually read the music and everyone else was simply attempting to follow them by ear.

Do you see the problem? 99% of the younger and unchurched demographic that may grace your church on a Sunday morning will try to sing the melody by ear (you should also know that 61% of my statistics are made up off the top of my head). And if you’re using hymnals, the melody will often be out of range for most of them (Some modern day song writers still place melodies too high for the average human).

Does this mean the hymnals have to go? Nope. Not saying that. But churches using hymnals need a solution that will begin to engage a broader demographic in singing.  The way I see it, you’ve got 2 options:

The Bad One
You could launch a music education campaign in your local church to try and save the good ol’ ways. But I think you’ll find that boat has sailed.  Traditional choirs have generally been in decline for years and I suspect your entire church would follow suit if you try training them all to be a traditional choir.

The Good One
Or you could just change the key. When you plan this week’s hymns, check the range of the melody. To engage the most people, you’d like it to generally fall between middle C and the C below. If it’s too high, transpose it down a bit. You don’t even have to be a musical genius: Use a great tool like SongSelect to do the heavy lifting for you.

Hymnal-users out there, what other challenges are you aware of? Do you have other possible solutions?

Photo credit: KOREphotos / Foter / CC BY-NC-SA

Disclosure: I have not received any compensation for writing this post. I have no material connection to the brands, products, or services that I have mentioned. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”


  1. Terrific insight, Neil…praying with you today for your life & ministry!


    • Looks like great minds think alike :) Many of those song-key combos look familiar!

  3. May we add : NEARER MY GOD -G , I SURRENDER ALL-D , JESUS LOVE ME -D , I SAW THE LIGHT -G , THIS LITTLE LIGHT -F , I’LL FLY AWAY -G , CROWN HIM WITH -C . Nursing home folks love these songs , traditional service ( hymn and organ ) folks , too . Contemporary worship folks tolerate them well if played with modern arrangements , especially if some back beat ( snare ) is provided . Add some distorted electric guitar on the chorus and even unchurched folks accept them .


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